Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Adventures in Charter Schools

The LA Times runs a story today about Academia Avance, a Highland Park charter school that former teachers, former office workers, a former principal, and parents say has serious problems with financial impropriety, gross mismanagement and academic shortcomings.

The founder of Academia Avance - Ricardo Mireles, a former technical specialist for the Metropolitan Transit Authority and LA Unified school district - decided to open his own charter school after he helped set up computer and phone systems for the California Charter Schools Association.

The LA Times says Mireles thought he had "soaked up" enough about education while working for the charter school association as a computer and phone guy to start his own charter.

Apparently top officials at LA Unified agreed because he got his charter in the fall of 2005 and started the school with 100 sixth and seventh graders. He is planning to add a grade every year so that the school eventually teaches grades 6-12.

But former employees and parents say the place is a disaster. Mireles is described as an "autocrat" who burns through staff like cheap candles. Teachers quit and are replaced by office staff, parents of children, even Mireles himself. Rarely is a qualified teacher brought in.

Mireles pads attendance records to make his school look better to LA Unified. If a student is absent but can be contacted by staff on the phone at home, in the hospital or even in Mexico, that student is declared "present" on the attendance list. Mireles denies this is so but told a parents' forum that

We explained to parents and kids, even if your child is not in school and you come and talk to your teachers and get the homework, there's a value for that," he said. If the student comes on campus for 1 minute, that counts -- that's the way the average daily attendance rules work.

Heckuva way to educate the kids! Have them stay home, watch Maury and call in for the homework or go to Mexico for the week and call in long distance for it.

I bet Chancellor Klein in New York City, who also likes to pad attendance statistics himself, might find some use for Mireles' attendance innovations.

At any rate, even when the kids show up to Academia Avance, there are huge problems. For instance, in order to make the school environment look better than it actually is to regulators from the district, Mireles has a habit of moving classes from the actual school grounds to somewhere else:

He allowed the school district's charter-school division to believe that classes were actually taking place at nearby Ramona Hall or in the facilities of Plaza de la Raza, rather than at a Presbyterian church at North Avenue 53 and Figueroa Street.

For one visit by the charter-school division, the entire student body was moved to Ramona Hall, according to former Principal Carlos O. Cortez, former office manager Maria Lopez and former teacher Miller.

Mireles denied any deception. Sometimes the church was unavailable because of construction or church-related business; sometimes it wasn't the best venue for the day's instructional program, he said.

Why does Mireles feel the need to move classes to another locale when higher-ups from the district come?

Because Academia Avance has substandard classrooms, no heat, no air conditioning, inadequate services for the disabled, computers that don't work, and broken bathrooms.

You can see why Mireles would want to take the school on a class trip on those days when the charter school supervisors show up to evaluate his school.

Academia Avance is a dump.

Mireles says all these allegations are being made by disgruntled former employees so they shouldn't be believed, but even if they are true, none of the allegations amount to a crime, so everything is swell with Academia Avance.

The LA Times says charter schools like Academia Avance, which has low test score stats as well as the numerous complaints lodged about staff turnover, inadequate facilities and administrator impropriety, will probably survive:

The story of an embattled charter school facing the school board and the court of public opinion has emerged several times in the last year. Nearly all such schools have survived, whether the issue was low test scores, admission practices, questionable accounting or an unorthodox curriculum.

It seems that charter schools lead a charmed life in the LA Unified school district.

Apparently because these schools are charters, they are allowed to get away with financial impropriety, attendance record fraud, broken down facilities and other problems that charter school advocates would be screaming about if the schools were regular old public schools with unionized employees.

On the plus side, it does seem that if you're looking for a change in job and you know nothing about education other than you once went to school sometime in the past, LA Unified has a charter school for you.
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